In Fast Company on Sound Logos

And what is the sound of Wikipedia?

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Rob Walker for a Fast Company story this week. He wrote about the Wikimedia Foundation’s current open call for “sound logos.” As he describes it, the connection of sound with branding is nothing new: “Jingles have been a staple of broadcast advertising from the beginning, and before that, traveling medicine shows were heavily musical.” I contributed some thoughts about the sizable breadth of Wikimedia’s creative brief — “both in terms of topic (‘the sound of all human knowledge’) and audience (presumably: everyone on the planet?)” — and he mentioned the recent Disquiet Junto music community project (the Junto is another effort of mine) in which participants contributed entries to the Wikimedia contest.

I think Wikimedia has a unique challenge ahead. While the name Wikipedia is widely recognized, Wikimedia isn’t, nor are the majority of its other activities, of which there are a dozen. (Have you used Wikispecies, Wikivoyage, Wikisource, or Wikidata recently?) I’m not even convinced that Wikipedia’s own visual logo is all that well known — that is, I’m not sure how many people would recognize it out of context. (Interestingly, as the Fast Company story notes, the Wikipedia visual logo — the jigsaw puzzle globe — was also the result of a contest, apparently won in 2003 by a 17-year-old, Paul Stansifer, who is now a software engineer at Google. The globe was then refined by someone else.)

The people entering the sound logo contest don’t have much to go on. Creative constraints are not just valuable but necessary. One of those is the audience for whom the logo is intended. Part of me wonders who truly has allegiance to Wikipedia. I wonder if it’s more the people who contribute to the ever-growing database of information than the people who use it. I’ve done some work for open-source projects, and the audience of participants in those efforts is often more “knowable” and central than are the actual end-users, which is a broader and more diffuse collection of loose cohorts. I’d recommend prioritizing practitioners — the people whose work fuels Wikipedia — because if the logo doesn’t register with them (or, worse, if it turns them off), then you have a serious problem to manage. (I loved the stage of the Marvel credit sequence logo when you heard the pages of comics flipping by during a montage of the company’s broad creative heritage. That spoke to a certain community, a certain subset of their audience. Perhaps tellingly, as the movies and TV shows continued to outpace the comics, the sound of the pages was removed.)

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